Resource for Hegel + CHAT Symposium, April 2013

An “Action”

“Actions” are the basic units of human life, of Activity.

“Action” is an ancient word, derived from the Latin and as old as the English language itself. “Consciousness,” on the other hand, dates from the 17th century, and Behaviour is a quite recent invention.

Action was introduced as a concept in philosophy by Johann Gottlob Fichte (1762-1814) to overcome the dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Action is implicit in Hegel’s philosophy but was given an idealist expression. However, Moses Hess, a follower of Fichte and a pioneer of communist philosophy, promoted the concept of Action with an essay called “The Philosophy of the Act.” After meeting with Hess in Paris in 1843, Marx adopted the key tenet of this work and gave expression to it in “Theses on Feuerbach.” Marx never elaborated the concepts of Action and Activity in a philosophical system, but Activity remained the fundamental concept for his work. When Vygotsky appropriated Marx’s work in creating a foundation for Psychology, he recovered the concept of Action and gave it practical application as the key concept for psychology. A. N. Leontyev further elaborated the concept of Action and gave it a systematic philosophical definition.

Actions are the main units of human life, of Activity. An Action is a purposive act or doing. An Action is therefore both objective, external, material, perceptible movement, and subjective, internal, mental – intentions, plans and feelings. That is, actions are a unity of both consciousness and behaviour. (‘Behaviour’ does not include any subjective component.) (See LSVCW v. 3, pp. 35-50.)

Since Actions are purposive, a person is generally consciously aware of their Actions; those Actions which are carried out without conscious awareness (such as stepping over a kerb while walking) are called Operations. But in human beings, Operations always have the potential to be transformed into Actions, whilst conversely, through force of habit, Actions may also be transformed into Operations. (See Leontyev 2009, pp. 369ff.)

An Action is not however objective behaviour + subjective thought; action is a prior unity which is subsequently (i.e., in development) differentiated into subjective thinking and objective behaviour, as, for example, a growing child learning to subject their own behaviour to conscious control. An Action cannot be ‘broken down’ into movements and meanings (what you did and what you meant to do), because without the real unity of the two, it is not an Action. Nonetheless, actions contain an internal Contradiction in that what you mean to do is not always what you do, and vice versa. An Action can only be understood together with the train of thinking which manifested itself in an objective act, not limited to a momentary state of consciousness. Nonetheless, even in CHAT literature, “action” is frequently used in the everyday sense of a behavioural act.

“The basic 'components' of separate human activities are the actions that realize them. We regard action as the process that corresponds to the notion of the result which must be achieved, that is, the process which obeys a conscious goal. Just as the concept of motive is correlative with the concept of activity, so the concept of goal is correlative with that of action.” (Leontyev, 1978)

All human activity is made up of actions, and nothing other than actions. An Action is thus the basic Unit of human life and all the phenomena of human life have to be understood in and through the study of actions.

Actions are the ‘molecular’ (as opposed to ‘molar’) units of human life. Actions are always directed to the realisation of some goal (or Object), but in general the goals to which actions are directed are not meaningful in themselves, but acquire meaning only to the extent that they serve a motive which is provided by the Activity of which the Action is a part.

In the words of A. N. Leontyev:

Processes, the object and motive of which do not coincide with one another, we shall call ‘actions’.” (2009, p. 187)

An Action may require a whole series of phases (possibly carried out by different people) in order to attain its ultimate social aim, it remains an action insofar as it is executed by an individual, directed towards attaining its object, whose motive is implicit in the collaborative Activity of which it is a part.

Activities, on the other hand, are the ‘molar’ units of Activity (i.e., activities are made up of a large number of actions), are collaborative, rather than being carried out by individuals alone, and are (according to A. N. Leontyev and Y. Engeström) characterised by the motive to which the activity is directed. Whilst the motive of an Activity can be understood from the universal historical and societal context, the goal of an individual action cannot be so understood. It makes sense only within the context of the particular Activity. Although Leontyev would not have agreed, Yrjö Engeström said:

“We may well speak of the activity of the individual, but never of individual activity; only actions are individual.” (Engeström 1987, p. 87)

All actions are mediated by the use of artefacts, and we take an action to be inclusive of the artefact with which it is mediated. Actions are simply inconceivable apart from the use of artefacts (which could be a spoken word, a piece of land, a tool or machine, even a human hand, etc.), and it is by means of artefacts, which are products of the broader culture which frames the activity of which the action is a part, that the broader societal context of an Action places its stamp upon how an action is carried out. We learn how to use artefacts by using them jointly with other people.

Although actions are taken to be the actions of individuals, actions are always ‘joint’, in several ways. (1) The goal of the action makes sense only in the context of the collaborative activity of which the action is a part, (2) The motive served by the action (which differs from the immediate goal of the action) is produced by the collaborative activity which the action serves, (3) The means by which the action is carried out, that is the artefact, is provided by the broader culture, and (4) The object of the action (such as the addressee of a spoken word) is generally another person, the relation to whom suffuses the action. Thus CHAT writers always take even such a solitary action as writing a book as a collaborative, social action.

Vygotsky paid a great deal of attention to speech as the most developed form of activity, and its basic unit, word meaning. In this context, “word” has to be understood as an action, in which the mediating artefact, is a spoken word, and meaning is the inner aspect of the word. The relation between a word meaning and a concept is the same as the relation between any action and the activity of which it is a part.

‘Doing’ and ‘Act’ – synonyms for Action – are not given any different meaning in CHAT.


Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by Expanding. An Activity-Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research. p. 87

Fichte, J. G. (1796). Foundations of Natural Right According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehrev,

Hess, M. (1842. The Philosophy of the Act.

Leontyev, A. N. (1978). Activities, Consciousness and Personality.

Leontyev, A. N. (2009). The Development of Mind, pp. 369ff. A Contribution to the Theory of the Development of the Child’s Psyche.

Marx, K. (1845) Theses on Feuerbach.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1924). The Methods of Reflexological and Psychological Investigation. LSVCW v. 3, pp. 35-49.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1930). The Instrumental Method in Psychology, LSVCW, v. 3, pp. 85-90.